A Story From: United States
Read Time: 10 to 15 mins.
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs.
LONG AGO in a Native American village, there once lived a lovely girl named Sapana who was peculiar in one respect – she loved and admired birds of prey. She found fascinating the circling of the hawk, the wide wingspan of the eagle, even the swoopings of the buzzard. These noble birds, she felt, couldn’t be faulted for enjoying the taste of meat – after all, weren’t her own people also hunters? In the fields, Sapana would leave scraps of meat on the ground for her feathered friends, and they came to look forward to her treats.
One day, Sapana found an injured hawk lying on the ground, its wing speared by a porcupine quill. She wondered if the poor creature would allow her to approach it. But the hawk didn’t seem distressed by her presence, so she gingerly stepped forward. Holding the bird with one hand, she eased out the quill with the other. The bird squawked, flapped its wings and flew upward. Then the sound of another bird in distress. A magnificent eagle also lay on the ground, injured by a porcupine quill. She removed that offending spine, too. Then at the foot of a cottonwood tree she saw the culprit – a porcupine.
“How dare you!” she cried to the porcupine. Turning to her friends, she called, “Natane! Ethete! Let’s catch this porcupine – we’ll get enough quills to embroider moccasins for three winters.” She ran toward the porcupine but it scampered up the tree. “I’ll get you, you rodent,” she muttered, climbing up the wide tree trunk. Sapana was a fast climber, but the porcupine was even faster
“Sapana, come down! You’re too high! We can’t see you anymore!” her friends called out. But if Sapana heard them, she did not care. She would climb to the very top of the tree if she had to, and then the porcupine would have nowhere else to go. But the tree seemed to somehow extend itself even higher as she climbed. Just when she thought she had nearly reached the treetop, there was yet more of the trunk to climb. So up she climbed, through the clouds and then beyond them.
Ahead of her was something flat and shiny. Had she reached the very edge of the sky? She touched the surface. That moment, she fell backward, but not out of the tree. She fell onto a ground. Looking around at the brown bushes and gray skies, she said, “I must be in the Sky World. What a dreary place it is, not at all pleasant like Earth.”
“Get used to it,” sneered an old man.
“Who are you?” said Sapana.
“Who do you think?” he hissed, and transformed himself into a giant porcupine. “I knew I could lure you here. It was so easy! I’ve been watching you and knew you would make a fine wife for me.”
“What? I won’t stay here! You can’t make me!” Sapana cried.
“Really? And exactly how do you propose to leave?” He turned and aimed his giant quills at her.
Sapana had no choice but to stay with the porcupine-man. When he brought home buffalo hides, she had to scrape and stretch them, and sew them into robes. If there were no hides to work on, she was told to pull up wild turnips for dinner.
One day, she was tugging at a turnip that she knew was too large for her to pull. Yet she tugged at it anyway. was especially stubborn. Maybe because she was so frustrated with her unhappy state, maybe because she was so angry at the porcupine-man, but she would not give up on that turnip. She worked it and tugged it from all angles until it finally started to give way. She pushed it back and forth, using her digging stick for leverage, until finally with one mighty push she rolled it on top of the ground. Gasping from the effort, she noticed a patch of light shining up from the hole where the turnip had sat. She peered down the hole – it was the sky! Far down she could even make out patches of green that must be the earth. Her heart racing, she rolled the turnip back over the hole. Now she knew how to get out of the Sky World! She just had to fashion a way to safely lower herself back to Earth.
In the days that followed, Sapana saved all the leftover strips of sinew from making buffalo robes. While the porcupine-man was away, she coiled them into tight strands that she hid under her bed. Over time she finished a long rope she hoped would be her ticket to freedom.
One day after the porcupine-man left to go hunting, Sapana took her rope and digging stick to the turnip, pulled out the turnip, tied her rope around her digging stick, placed the digging stick over the hole, and tied the other end of the rope securely around her waist. Then she slipped through the hole, letting the rope fall, and grasped the portion of the rope closest to the digging stick. Hand by hand, she lowered herself down.
Down Sapana dropped through the clouds. Soon she could see larger patches of green below that must be the treetops. But would the rope be long enough? When she had let out all the rope, she was still far above the treetops. Swaying back and forth in the air, she bemoaned her fate.
“You’ll never escape!” she heard an distant yet awful voice above. It was the porcupine-man peering down the turnip hole. “Come up at once or I’ll cut the rope. You’ll drop to your death!”
“I’ll never come up!” cried Sapana, knowing that sealed her own fate.
“Then you’re done for!” he shrieked. He swung the rope and she pitched wildly, back and forth. Then with a jerk Sapana felt the rope give way. The final strand was severed and she started to pummel to earth.
But wait – something broke her fall. It was the back of buzzard. “Let me help you coast to earth, Sapana,” said the buzzard, “though I may not be able to take you all the way.” Indeed in less than a minute he was too tired since she was a far heavier weight than what he normally carried, and an eagle swooped up to take his place.
“I’ll take you now,” said the eagle, and she rode on his feathered back for several minutes, sometimes coasting the air currents, but her body was a load too heavy even for the mighty eagle, and before long he got tired. Then a hawk took his place.
And so Sapana zigzagged down to earth, from one bird of prey to another. Finally she alighted from the last hawk onto a treetop, where she stepped onto a firm thick branch. Dizzy from riding the backs of so many lurching, dipping birds, she petted the last of her fliers, then scampered down the tree back down to earth and her beloved home.
Her friends rushed up. “Sapana! We thought you were dead!” They embraced and Sapana rushed home to see her mother, who was overjoyed beyond words to see her lost daughter.
Sapana told the people of her village of her adventures. No longer did they think her strange to befriend the birds of prey. From then on, after a hunt they always left an extra buffalo on the field for the noble birds of the sky.
The above story is retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2006. All rights reserved.
The Arapaho Native Americans from eastern Colorado and Wyoming fit the image popularly described as "Plains Indians"- roaming the plains as big-game hunters, living in teepees and following the buffalo for sustenance. At the time of the 1990 census there were close to 7,000 Arapaho in the United States.
One source traces the origin of this story to "Arapaho Caddo." However this author believes the story is more accurately sourced to the Arapaho than to the Caddo. The Caddo is a tribe that eventually lived near the Arapaho in Oklahoma and Texas (the Arapho originating from the midwest plains and the Caddo from the southeast). While the two tribes may have influenced one another or intermarried, the Caddo were historically farmers, not hunters. This story is told from the point of view of a Native American hunting culture, and so it more likely originated with the Arapaho..
Cottonwood trees are one of the largest trees in North America, growing up to 100 feet tall with massive trunks over 5 feet in diameter. Its shaking, shimmering leaves are reminiscent of poplars and aspens, tree species that share the same botanical family. The cottonwood is well adapted to life on the prairie and was historically valued for its shade, wood, and welcomed from afar by travelers for its known proximity to water. Its fluffy white seeds, produced by the female cottonwood, give the tree its name.